In my last article, we explored how decades of discriminatory policies have contributed to the disparate access to greenspace experienced by low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. This next piece will highlight unique methods for incorporating new greenspace into communities where open space seems like such a rare commodity.
Creating greenspace in a concrete jungle requires creativity, but it can be done. Let us look at some unexpected ways different communities have developed greenspace.
Exploring Abandoned Underpasses
One example includes the activation of an abandoned or rarely used underpass – an extremely effective way to create park space in park-poor communities. “Parkifying” an underutilized underpass would turn a desolate place into a piece of nature people look forward to visiting. Cultivating some of these underpasses as recreational spaces space would in turn, activate the surrounding neighborhood by providing a space for residents to live, work and play. Cities across the country have utilized this technique and as a result have revitalized their neighborhoods.
Underused alleys can also be “parkified” to add greenery into asphalt filled neighborhoods and could also potentially make safer neighborhoods by deterring criminal activities that often flourish in alleys. Alleys have been blocked off in park-poor neighborhoods before in order to reduce crime rates, which was effective, yet the alley could simultaneously lower crime rates and be environmentally beneficial to the neighborhood. Simply adding lights, benches, grass, and trees would make a world of difference in neighborhoods that don’t typically see greenery in their daily lives.
Re-designing Industrial Buildings & Warehouses
Properties with abandoned buildings such as old industrial sites and warehouse districts can also provide park space. Landschafts Park in Duisburg, Germany was once a steel and ironworks plant and as it was decommissioned it became an integral part of the community as a park. Birmingham Alabama’s Railroad Park was once a premiere part of the steel works industry’s warehouse district before it was converted into a park. Similarly, Gas Works Parks and Olympic Sculpture Park are parks in Seattle that were converted from manufacturing sites.
Re-Visiting Park Space in Los Angeles
The list goes on – communities across the nation and internationally have shown that we can “parkify” the most unexpected places, including old elevated railways and rooftops , and even landfills! This sounds idealistic, especially in a heavily regulated city like Los Angeles. However, to think more critically about the feasibility of these types of projects, I spoke to Jenny Aleman-Zometa, Program Director of the Los Angeles River State Park Partners (LARSPP). LARSPP works to better the state parks near the Los Angeles River by engaging with the community through group discussions, local events and distribution of resources. Jenny shared with me that both parks she works with, Rio De Los Angeles and LA State Historic Park, were once train yards and brown fields that were very separate from the public until community organizations advocated and reclaimed the space for park land. She states that people truly deserve the connection to nature that parks offer, and the deconstruction of those industrial spaces and the transformation into parks is not only necessary, but also feasible, as she has seen it done across many parks in Los Angeles.
Indeed, there is work already being done across Los Angeles. Just one example is the Adopt-A-Lot pilot program (launched in early 2019) which aims to turn empty, city-owned lots into community spaces. In addition, the works of groups such as Free Lots Angeles, Kuonkuey Design Initiative, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, and many others demonstrate that shaping the built environment to create more parks is achievable.
We like to think there is no space for parks in urban communities because all the abandoned and unused spaces for parks are out in the desert or rural areas, but in our own cities there are prime locations for fundamental parks and recreation centers. It is important that we think creatively to reverse the decisions of the past that led us to this state because those in park-poor communities are more likely to suffer health conditions from the lack of greenspace and overabundance of industrial sites. By reimagining landfills, dump sites, old elevated rails ways, overpasses, etc. as parks we would be giving communities access to parks and a healthier way of life.
Naomi Humphrey is an alumna of National Health Foundation’s BUILD Health Initiative at Thomas Jefferson Senior High. She is currently an undergraduate student at UCLA, and continues to advocate for park equity and spatial justice for her home community as a member of Prevention Institute’s Powering Healthy Lives through Parks Community Advisory Board, and serving as NHF’s Health Equity Fellow. This article is the second of a series authored by Naomi exploring current issues regarding health equity and the built environment.